You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘desert adventures’ category.

In ESL class the other day, the topic was Halloween. This was because Massi, who came from the Middle East this summer and is mystified by much that she sees in American culture, asked if we could talk about it. I asked her what she thought it was. “Americans believe it’s a day when ghosts come back and walk the earth,” she told me. Well, no, not exactly, I told her. But she was adamant. She was sure someone had told her that.

I tried to explain how people like to be scared, how they pretend to believe scary stuff but really don’t. I had prepared a lesson that included some of the history of Halloween, questions that asked if they believed in ghosts or witches, and references to the Salem Witch Trials.

We were talking about that, and it suddenly occurred to me that what’s happening with the Ebola scare is, in many ways, a modern day version of the same paranoia and fear of something that’s just not well understood, something that happens to this group of people there who need to be kept away from our group of people here. I tried to explain this, although I think I lost most of my class. They are doing very well but this was just too theoretical!

Ebola is perfect for Halloween. It’s really scary but in many ways it doesn’t seem quite real, occurring as it does only on our televisions (unless you live in Dallas or, of course, in West Africa).

Donn and I are on our way to Mauritania again (literally. I’m typing at 36,000 feet, although it won’t post till later) and it’s been fascinating to me how many people have asked us about Ebola. No, it isn’t in Mauritania or Morocco. Senegal had one case but contained it and is now considered Ebola-free. Our risk is virtually non-existent. Africa is a very large continent, not a country.

I had mostly given up on this blog. I never even finished writing about our last trip to these 2 countries, and I was saving the best, funniest stories for last. Maybe I’ll still write one last post about the ’13 trip, but it seems unlikely at this point. In spite of previous failures, I’m going to try again. I started an instagram (planetnomad) and I’m hoping to at least post lots of photos, but I want to write. I brought a laptop this time. We’ll see how it goes.

And, when we landed in Nouakchott, they checked our temps. Donn joked that, had he known that would happen, he would have kept a mouthful of food and pretended to vomit. I asked why he’d want to get quarantined here? He’s crazy.

The airport here is changing; we got the most modern, up-to-date visa I’ve ever seen, and they even took my fingerprints. We have wicked jet-lag. The airport personnel in the Casa airport lived up to their reputation and rifled through our bags, helping themselves to some of the gifts we’d brought people.We had a 36-hour layover in Casa, where we stayed with friends and spent an afternoon wandering round the Grand Mosque and the Corniche, and I found a mall filled with American stores…Starbucks, Payless Shoes, H&M, all high-end and gleaming here, stores for the Very Rich. 

I’ll write again soon.

photoBoarding our last flight to NKC

Advertisements

Why yes, I’m still working on telling you all about a trip I took last fall. Hang in there. Only a few more posts, and then I’ll go  back to posting once every three months.

When we first moved to Mauritania, I was amazed at the driving. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We’d lived there only a few months when 3 kids racing horses down the street flew around a corner and smashed a horse up onto our car, leaving the horse screaming in agony with a broken leg (they didn’t put it down either; the poor thing lived another week). They claimed it was our fault, and the police agreed after a rapid discussion in Arabic in which some money may or may not have changed hands.

Driving in Mauritania was never ever relaxing. Stopping for a red light was like a jeopardy game. You know how the contestants wait with their hands on the buzzer, and the instant the question flashes they hit that buzzer, only to sometimes realize they don’t know the answer? That was what it was like. The instant the light changed–literally before you had time to move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal–the honking started.

Some events remain green in my memory. The woman in the pink muluffa driving 5 km down one of the main streets with her eyes closed, muttering prayers as her car drifted dangerously near mine. The donkey cart in the right lane suddenly swerving in front of me to turn left. Me jamming on the brakes and shouting and gesturing a bit (not rudely, just exasperatedly) and the children being so embarrassed. The habit drivers had of simply stopping their cars in the middle of the street and getting out and going into the school/shop/wherever. The pointless traffic jams where each car claims each inch of space it can, resulting in a full intersection of angry people and no one going anywhere.

IMG_1115This is my attempt to show you a pointless traffic jam. This is a normal intersection. In America, there would be one lane of traffic going each way. We are headed towards those buildings. The picture is taken through the windshield of Aicha’s car and you can see the hood and the direction we’re pointing. I’m not sure this picture does it justice, but I knew no one there would want to be photographed.

As bad as Mauritania was, Morocco was worse. The driving was the same, except there were more cars going faster, since streets were paved, and there were high curbs and sidewalks, which took away your getaway. (In Mauritania, even paved streets have wide sandy shoulders filled with children and handicapped people that you can swerve into if necessary.) Morocco was insane. If Mauritania was hell on wheels, Morocco was the 9th circle. But I learned to love the challenge. There was one road that I always felt would be instrumental in teaching fractions. It was divided in half (one half for each direction) as normal, but the entire road was also divided in thirds. This meant 1 1/2 lanes for each direction. Naturally Moroccan drivers were able to turn this into 3 lanes for each direction. I found it just as effective as anything else to simply close my eyes and use the force to steer.

When we first came back to the US, I found the driving tame and insipid. I tend to express my feelings vocally while driving, and I would sit at the green light muttering “GO!” at the car in front of me while Ilsa chirped, “Use the horn, Mom!” from the back seat. Seriously, she could not understand why her parents were suddenly so mealy-mouthed, so to speak. I tend to be a really impatient driver with a bit of a heavy foot on the gas pedal. I swerve (politely) in and out of traffic, making up time so I’m not too late, usually going ever-so-slightly above the speed limit, until I notice I’m 15 10 miles over and slow down. And this is on surface streets.

I assumed I still had what it took to be on the streets of North Africa, so it came as a shock to find that I have become timid. I’d be sitting in a taxi watching a bus coming straight towards me, about to T-bone us, and I would find myself tense, gasping, bracing for the inevitable collision as our taxi moved with less than a second to spare. When we lived there, things like this didn’t bother me. I rather liked the excitement of the near miss. But on this trip I spent a lot of our time in taxis tensing up and feebly fumbling for something to hold on to–the edge of the seat, the door handle if available, anything. My heart pounded. Pitiful.

Morocco has spent the last 3 years attempting to re-do its driving. Right about the time we were leaving, they were introducing a system of “points” where you could lose points for various infractions, although how on earth this would be enforced remained unclear. Foreigners had to get a Moroccan driver’s license, whether or not they really spoke French or Arabic. Supposedly this would make everything calmer, more civilized. I had visions of intersections with drivers saying, “No, you go first. Please” instead of charging ahead, guns blazing, so to speak. On this trip, there came a moment when we were in a taxi heading downtown and I realized that everyone was waiting in his or her own proper lane. There were supposed to be 3 lanes–there were 3 lanes, instead of the normal 5 or 6. “Wow, it’s really working,” I thought.

The traffic light changed, everyone surged forward, and within 2 seconds I realized that actually nothing had changed. Battles were still being fought over inches of pavement space. The only difference was my stress level and, apparently, gullibility.

By the time we got to Mauritania, I’d pretty much adjusted back. Donn’s friend Mohammed, who is doing really well for himself, loaned us a car for a few days. It was just like old times, driving around town, getting stuck in pointless traffic jams where the only way out is to join in and fight for those inches of progress, singing “Anarchy in the UK” (Sample lyrics: I know what I want and I know how to get it) as we wove our way in and out of oncoming traffic. It was Oregon that was once again the shock.

IMG_1142

When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.

We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?

In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.

IMG_1094This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?

That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.

We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.

Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.

IMG_1801Look how pink Donn looks! I don’t know why. In real life he is not raspberry coloured.

We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.

That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.

As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.

In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”

It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.

Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.

broken chair one

I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”

See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.

And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.

I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries.  And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.

Waking up that first morning back in Nouakchott was strange. I had slept surprisingly well on my solid-as-a-rock mattress. But I was unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, as I rubbed sleep from them and stared out the front window.

IMG_1047

Puddles and puddles and puddles! What was up? I well remember, in fact it is seared into my memory, how hot and dry Nouakchott was. Located where the sands of the Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean, built on some salt flats by the French who decided on a relatively-neutral spot to build a new capital city for a new country in 1960, Nouakchott was the exact opposite of Portland. It rained 4-6 times a year, always harsh and sudden and preceded by a wind that whipped the reddish sand straight up into a wall that was then slammed down hard by the rain, rendering anything outside, like clean clothes on your washline, covered with reddish mud. Rainstorms lasted anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then they were over. They left lots of puddles, that disappeared within a day or so as the hot thirsty air drank all moisture available and the sand eventually absorbed what was left. It only rained between July and September. I remember one year in which it really didn’t rain at all.

IMG_1869

This was different. Since we left in 2007, the sea has risen, so that now there are actually permanent ponds, almost lakes, in this desert city. There are rushes, and ducks and egrets. I can not emphasize strongly enough to you how strange this is. It would be like leaving Portland for 6 years and returning to find a barren wasteland that no one had thought to mention to me.

IMG_1046

We arrived very late on a Wed. night, around midnight. Thursday was normal weather-wise, but the Friday and Saturday of that week it rained all day. It was bizarre. In spite of huge changes in the amount of paved roads, most of Nouakchott remains sand instead of pavement, and the sand turned instantly to mud. I was wearing very long skirts (well, long skirts on a short person) that dragged in the mud.

After 2 days of rain, the place was truly flooded. Several large intersections were impassable. When I went to visit Aicha, we had to park a long ways away and walk to her house over a trail made of sandbags, cement blocks and other debris. We heard stories of people in the poorer sections of town who lost everything, of children drowned in houses. Tim and Debbie’s old house was unreachable without wading through deep water.

IMG_1025

IMG_1026(sorry this is blurry. I was trying to be subtle with my camera. Also this was taken from a moving car using telephoto)

It rained for 2 days and was pleasant, temperature-wise, although unpleasant to walk around in. But then the weather cleared. The sky was actually blue! (In Nouakchott, it’s usually white with dust and haze) And it was hot. It was around 100 degrees for the rest of the time we were there. The heat slowly shrank the puddles and the wind whipped up the drying sand. It achieved a state I would previously have thought impossible–it managed to be muddy and dusty at the same time.

IMG_1008

I wrote the kids long emails that I would send when we had internet access, which wasn’t very often. (Ilsa: “Your letters are so long. You’re not going to have anything left to tell us.” It’s like she doesn’t even know me. She complained often about the length of my emails, which made me feel great about her interest level in me, but she did read them.) I told them over and over about all the water. Donn did too. And yet, when we were back and Abel was looking at my phone pics while in a doctor’s waiting room, he shouted, “WHAT??? WHAT IS ALL THAT WATER???” Everyone looked. I tried to explain, sort of. It was awkward.

IMG_1058

Seeing all that green was nice. Donn and I are hoping that the city learns to deal with its new water, and that it ends up being a good thing. In the meantime, the water is brackish and not really anything you’d want to get too near.

 

Isn’t THAT an exciting title? I knew you’d be impressed.

So we set off from our Portland home on Oct. 24th. Our flight was nonstop to Amsterdam, then we had an hour and a half layover and then another non-stop to Casablanca, where we planned to take the train to Rabat, our former home. And already, when you read the words “we planned,” your heart did a double-thump because you knew the best laid plans of international travelers gang aft agley.

Actually it really wasn’t too bad. The flight from PDX was 15 minutes late or as we call it “totally on time, dude” and we landed just fine in Amsterdam some 10 or 11 hours later, having learned that the new comedies are so stupid one can’t sit through the whole thing, and having read the entire new Bridget Jones book and a lot of classic Sherlock Holmes in which I pictured Holmes and Watson as Cumberbatch and Freeman, which was actually kind of fun. Try it on your next long trip.

We landed and taxied for so long we were wondering if perhaps we hadn’t inadvertently landed in Germany and were driving to Holland. We rushed off the plane to our other gate, where there was an enormous incoherent line for no apparent reason, which we joined. It didn’t budge at all. Time ticked on, the people around us weren’t speaking Dareja (the Arabic dialect of Morocco) so I couldn’t see how much I remembered, and we stood and stood and said, “At least our bags will make it.”

Finally, about 30 minutes after the flight was to have left, we reached the front. They scanned Donn’s boarding pass and got an ominous beep. We smiled feebly at the impatient passengers behind us while the flight attendants peered anxiously at a computer. “Your bags didn’t make it so you can’t board for security reasons,” they announced.

This does not make sense. If you have a bomb in your bags then you would want your bags on board, not you. Right? We have told this story to many people and they have all agreed–this was something new, thought up by KLM and illogical to mere mortals.

We had to leave the line, argue with the lady at the KLM counter that if they sent us to Rome at 5:30 which had us arriving in Casa at midnight, we wouldn’t be able to go up to Rabat that night as the trains stop at 10. Finally she put us on a Royal Air Maroc flight leaving Amsterdam at 4:30 that afternoon. We had landed at 9:30, which gave us a whole day at the airport. She gave us vouchers for 10 euros each for lunch, which got us a small plate each and nothing to drink at a pizza place. We had to collect our bags which meant we had to leave the airport but we couldn’t check in again till 3. We spent several hours in the boring part of the airport, napping on hard chairs with dividers digging into our ribs, until we were able to splurge on desperately-overpriced instant coffee, check our bags, and wait another two hours at the gate. IMG_1723 The place we napped had rows and rows of empty slightly-padded black chairs, joined with metal armrests as dividers, with a table every 2 or 3 seats. We stretched out so our hips were on the table (which was very firm, I must say) and dozed off. At one point, a group of Brits came up and sat right next to us, ignoring the rows and rows of empty chairs around us. All 4 of them began to talk about past holidays, and it was nearly exactly like this sketch:

Monty Python sketch that won’t load

start it at about the 2 minute mark. The accent was the same, but they were going on and on about Prague and King Wenceslas Square and darling, the crowds! and they didn’t once mention Watney’s Red Barrel.

Eventually we made it to Casa, landing about 9:15 which just gave us time to rush through the airport, change money, collect our bags, buy our tickets, and make the 10:00 train to Rabat. We got to our friends’ house after midnight, having been unable to phone and tell them we’d be 9 hours late. It didn’t matter. In the morning I opened the shutters and looked out on white walls, bougainvillea in magenta and scarlet, spiky palm trees, and a blue sky, and felt I’d come home again.

Well I didn’t really catch TB but it was touch and go there for a bit. There was a man, probably very nice and kind in everyday life (or possibly not. I mean, you can’t really know), who was hacking and coughing non stop as we settled in at our gate a mere 90 minutes or so before take-off. Donn and I exchanged looks of horror. Seriously, we were going to be on an airplane with this man? He was really sick. We are not uptight about germs in general, and we are seasoned travelers and don’t turn hairs normally at screeching children or sniveling adults. But this man was something special. You could hear him attempting to displace his lungs 3 gates over! We took to calling him Monsieur TB (taybay in French), and we were happy to be seated across the giant plane and several rows back from him. However, all that air is recycled.

Add to that a visit to Mauritania, where the wind whips tiny particles of very dirty sand up your nose. Seriously, it’s best not to think about where that sand has been.

So I have a sinus infection now. I knew I had jet lag plus a cold plus a truly nasty headache, but at least I was sleeping lots. A doctor’s visit today confirmed my suspicions and garnered me 3 prescriptions. It was almost like being in France again!

I’ll be back again soon with actual stories from the trip. In the meantime, you should check out Donn’s Tumblr blog. He’s been posting up a storm. Also I love his Tumblr blog because it’s so random, a mix of chronology and geology that means one day you’ll see a picture of Abel drawing on the sidewalk when he was 3 (i.e. 2000), followed by a picture from Hawaii taken in the early 90s, followed by a picture he took yesterday in downtown Portland followed by one of Mauritania circa 2006. It’s fun!

Check it out here: Donn Jones

Ugh. I love traveling, but the two days either end of a big trip are always horrible. I am sitting in my own living room, typing on my own computer, in a dazy sort of cotton-filled fog. To make matters worse, I seem to have a cold. Over the last few weeks, I ate literally kilos of fresh Moroccan oranges, so if anyone’s body should be overflowing with enough Vitamin C to head off any sort of illness, it’s mine. Is everything we’ve been taught a lie?

To add insult to injury, I have had old Simon and Garfunkel songs stuck in my head for days now. Ever since we left Mauritania on Sunday at 8:15 a.m., a mere hour after we were scheduled to leave (Aside: this is good. Donn once spent 15 hours in that airport waiting for an overdue flight), and the words “well we’re homeward bound” popped into my head unbidden, I have had to listen to warbling tenors going on and on about “Home! where my music’s playin’ Home! where my love-life’s waiting silently for me.” And then my mind mixed it up with the one about the boxer (he remembered ever blow that laid him low or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame (pain?) that he’s leaving) and really, it’s not pretty. I sincerely hope that I haven’t now doomed you to a similar fate (let me know!) and also that soon I can listen to a different tune in my head. Not Bob Dylan though. That would not be an improvement.

So. Nothing like beginning at the end. I had hoped to blog this trip as it was happening, but we only brought one iPad to share between us and you know how well that goes. Also internet was far from being easily accessible. So I have brought back a lot of pictures and memories, and I’m going to share them with you! Aren’t you lucky? (Don’t answer that) We left OR on Oct. 24th, spent an unplanned day in the Amsterdam airport and arrived in Morocco on Oct. 25th. We went down to Mauritania, to visit our old home in Nouakchott, on Oct. 30th. We left Mauritania on Nov. 10th, had nearly 2 days in Morocco again, and left Jack and Annie’s Rabat home at 5 a.m. on Nov. 12th. We arrived home on Nov. 13th at about 1 p.m. (9 p.m. Moroccan time), having been traveling 39 hours at that point. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I am in a total fog today. If any words in here are off, this is why.

We left the twins mostly home alone, although there was an adult friend who slept here most nights and was a sort of consultant for them. Ilsa told me before we left that she would cook, so I bought enough food for 3 weeks worth of meals–some easy stuff that I never buy like canned soup, hotdogs and frozen pizza, but also ingredients for Thai peanut pasta, homemade sausage spaghetti, taco bowls made with grilled chicken, black beans and brown rice. My friend Sarita offered to host them any evening they didn’t want to cook, and various Iraqi friends promised food. Ilsa loves mashed potatoes so we bought a big bag of potatoes for her and talked about various things they could be served with, like sausage and peas, or chicken breast and green beans and salad.

We returned to a full fridge and freezer. As near as we can tell, they didn’t eat anything but yogurt and mashed potatoes. Even the hotdogs and the frozen pizza are still there. They went to Sarita’s one night, and Iraqi friends a couple of nights, but we were gone for 20 days. What did they eat? There’s lots of cereal in the cupboard and there are even still some granola bars. It is a mystery. Abel says he made Kraft mac n’ cheese some nights, and Ilsa says she made a lot of mashed potatoes. We are hoping to gradually reintroduce coloured foods–fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, crunchy non-processed fresh items–into their diets. One new food a day to see if they’re allergic, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

We had a fantastic trip. I took lots of photos and collected lots of stories and bought presents for pretty much everyone in my life but you, sorry, cuz we ran out of money and storage space in the suitcases, mostly because Donn bought a large Mauritanian tent since he’s regretted not keeping ours for years now. More to come very soon. How much detail do you want?

10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.

We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).

At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.

At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.

We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.

I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.

Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.

Before we moved to Mauritania, I read everything I could lay my hands on that had been written about the desert country about to become my new home. Perhaps you will not be surprised to know that wasn’t much. I could not find a book, in English, with Mauritania as its subject. The best I could do were books written by people who had traveled through the Sahara, who had visited Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco and Mauritania.

In general, these travelers loved Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco, but they didn’t love Mauritania. They found it hot and dusty and dirty, and they found the people isolated, suspicious, even hostile. I think what really determined their reaction was the city of Nouakchott which, I must admit, can be isolated, suspicious and even hostile, not to mention hot, dusty and dirty.

The one writer I found who actually seemed to like the country, to accept it as he found it and respond to the people with equanimity, was Quentin Crewe who wrote In Search of the Sahara. A British journalist with MS, confined to a wheelchair, he gathered a group and headed through the desert in the mid-80s in two Unimogs. Crewe is a great writer, and I appreciate that he includes a lot of the history of Europeans in the Sahara, although I skimmed those parts because what I really wanted to learn about was the Sahara in the mid-80s.

He writes of Oulata (where we visited ourselves, one Spring Break, and that was the trip where we nicknamed our guide Uncle Pervie cuz he wouldn’t stop holding Ilsa’s hand even when we told him not to, and that was also the trip where we saw the sleeping crocodile less than 10 feet from Elliot who was shouting, “LOOK!” It was a great trip.). He comes through Nouakchott and they head up the beach to Nouadhibou, because of course the road between Mauritania’s two main cities was another 20 years away from completion. He sees the great fishing grounds before they were depleted, and sees the fishermen and the dolphins working together to allow both man and dolphin to catch and eat fish. He recognizes heat and dust and dirt and suspicion, but he transcends it because he begins with a different sort of attitude. And, heading north of Nouadhibou towards the Moroccan border, their Unimog hits a landmine and blows up! Everyone survives, but they have to fly out. I’ve heard there are still land mines along that border, and when Donn went there I warned him not to wander off. He gave me a look. In general, it’s best not to wander along borders away from official crossings but in full view of them.

Last month, Donn’s sister and her husband came to see us (YAAY!) and of course we went to Powells. We always go to Powells. Most of our friends are avid readers, and even if they’re not, it’s a Portland landmark. I am always up for a trip to Powells, even if the urgency has been lost since I started this gig with 5 Minutes for Books, which guarantees that I always have a guilt-inducing stack I’m working my way through. (I am greedy when it comes to free books.)

I was wandering through the travel section, and I saw a copy of In Search of the Sahara! It’s been out of print for years, and I’d forgotten about it. Only $6! I picked it up and it smelled musty and damp and loved , that smell of old books that seems to be dying out in this brave new world where Powells only buys your newest, most pristine books, and even I got a Kindle at Christmas. Of course I bought the book, and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s really fun to reread his descriptions all these years later (I initially got the book from the library in the late 90s) and after visiting the places described.

On that visit, I also saw copies of all the books I own on the Sahara (Sahara Unveiled,  William Langewiesche’s similar trip from Algeria down across Mali and Mauritania; his account is so depressing that it scared me to death about moving there; and Mali Blues, in which the rather clueless Lieve Joris travels from Dakar, Senegal, along the bottom of Mauritania to Mali, where she interviews musicians. In one of my favorite examples of her obtuseness, she is visiting a French friend in Senegal and sees his child leave her clothes on the floor, and judges, because the child obviously only does that because she has a maid, thereby revealing herself as both childless and unmarried.) It was a little weird, like someone else had collected the same books and decided to get rid of them.

I was at Powells just before Christmas and I picked up an atlas put out by the Onion, flipped it open at random, and started that choked-down quiet giggle one gets in bookstores, shaking with laughter and blocking the aisle. It was so funny! I bought it for Donn and we’ve had lots of fun going through it. My favorite page is Sudan–slogan “All Better Now, Thanks to You,” which goes on to claim that the government, on hearing of a woman in Iowa wearing a “Save Darfur” t-shirt, was overcome with shame and changed their ways. They present Malaysia as a place for jihadists to vacation, relax, loosen their suicide belts.

But they go too far. I understand–how funny can one be about places like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Still, there’s a kind of anger that comes through, a slamming of anything that is not how the editors think the world should be, which is great if you happen to agree with them, and belittling if you don’t. That may be okay for a satirical atlas, but it’s a poor attitude for a traveler.

Donn and Elliot were recently looking through old photos and he posted this one to facebook. Looking at it, I was unprepared for the flood of memories it produced. I had all the normal “my BABY is now a stinky hairy man!” emotions of a mother of a soon-to-be 17 year old male, but mostly I remembered the circumstances in which that photo was taken.

We’d just arrived in Mauritania. Elliot was 5. Colleagues met us at the airport—we’d been traveling 2 days at that point, and Ilsa was covered in airline food (she was barely 4, poor thing), and I still remember that hot dry air sucking the breath from my lungs as I stepped to the open plane door and went down the steps, and I wondered, “Can I do this? Am I going to make it?” It was only April, 10 p.m., the air filled with dust and smoke and still hotter than Portland usually gets in August.

None of our suitcases arrived with us. Colleagues met us at the airport, all smiles, sweeping the twins into their arms. They took us first to their house, where they fed us spaghetti, and then to the apartment where we’d stay while we looked for our own house. The apt had been rented by a single male who’d come for a year-long internship and would be leaving soon. He was the type of single male who is clean and neat and just does things a little differently than your typical woman, like lining the bedroom with wires to dry your clothes on. Since none of our luggage had come, we ran the washing machine (located in the kitchen) and it flooded the kitchen, the soapy water full of little dead bugs. We squee-geed it right out the back door onto the balcony, which seemed very strange to me. Who knew you did it like that? In my American kitchen, that was not how you cleaned the floor.

When our clothes were clean, we hung them round our bed (weird). We stirred briefly at the dawn call to prayer, unused as yet to the loudspeakers near our windows, then slept deeply till noon, when our new friend knocked at the door to take us to lunch. He’d brought us clothes to borrow from various people, including a family with small girls who live near us now in Oregon and are good friends, though at this point we hadn’t met them.

But our own clothes were bone dry, another mystery. How could they have dried in the NIGHT like that? It was a good introduction to the Sahara, where clothes hung on the line at 8 will be dry by 10.

We began to settle in, adjust. Donn and Dave spent a lot of time at the airport, where eventually most of our luggage showed up. We began to learn where we could buy what, and I realized that I could feed my family on what was available there. Every morning Donn would walk to a tiny storefront in a garage of a house nearby and buy bread, and we’d eat bread and jam and coffee for breakfast. The kids loved the mango juice in small bottles. We all hated the milk.

Donn and Elliot went to the market together on our 2nd or 3rd day, ostensibly to buy things for the house. They returned with a tea set, a large Senegalese drum, and a robe (dra:a) for Elliot. Not my idea of necessities, although that tea set got a lot of use. Elliot had a Coke and came home wearing his robe, saying “Salaam A’lauykoum, Mom!” as he walked in the door. We were so excited to be there, and so scared and overwhelmed at the same time. Mostly excited though. There’s nothing like your first overseas move.

September 2019
S M T W T F S
« Mar    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
2930  

I’m now also at:

A Perfect Post – January 2007

Blog Stats

  • 347,165 hits

a

<a href="http://www.stumbleupon.com/submit?url=&title=">
Expat Women - Helping Women Living Overseas
living in Morocco

Books recently read:

Elizabeth Jones 's  book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists
No Princess Alone button
Advertisements